This is one of the most well-known and controversial portions of Romans. Second only to perhaps Romans 9, there is more disagreement on the meaning of these verses than in any other text in the book. The controversy stems from different interpretations of who Paul refers to here. He relates what appears to be his own life experience; however, the description – on first reading – seems at odds with some of the claims he’s just made in the preceding chapters as well as with our understanding of his life (based on what we know of him from his writings as well as Luke’s account in the book of Acts). Reconciling those things with the experience he discusses here is what has produced the differing opinions of who Paul actually describes.
There are several opinions and several nuances of the different opinions, but the views really break down into three main approaches. The first is that Paul does speak autobiographically in this text and does in fact describe his current life as a believer. The second view suggests that Paul speaks autobiographically, but he speaks of his life as a Pharisee before his Damascus road experience. In this view, his description of vainly trying to obey the Law is the experience of a frustrated Pharisee who doesn’t understand the gospel. The third view says that Paul simply describes the life of an unbeliever. The unregenerate man can never obey the Law because he’s enslaved to sin, so Paul’s description of the frustration of failing to obey dovetails nicely with the sinner’s state. In both the second and third views, the present tense Paul uses in the text is simply a literary device to more effectively communicate to his readers the frustration of the life he describes.
For the sake of our study, we adopt the first view – that Paul describes his own life as a believer. With that understanding, we’ll apply what he says to our own lives. If this is how life is for Paul, then it’s how life is for us.
We’ll explain in the study why we like the first view but it makes sense to also explain why we reject the other two. First let’s make clear that many very knowledgeable commentators and preachers through the years (albeit presumably none that have passed the CPA exam) have adopted one of the other views. That we take the first approach doesn’t mean the other two have no merit. But to say that Paul discusses either his own life as a Pharisee or simply the life of an unbeliever seems hard to reconcile with the text. For example, when we read any of Paul’s or Luke’s descriptions of Paul’s life before Damascus, the picture is of a man sure he was in the middle of God’s will. He was zealous for the Law, not someone who doubted his worthiness before it. He even tells the Philippians that he saw himself as “blameless” in regard to the Law (Phil 3:2-6). The person in this text, on the other hand, knows how far short he falls in keeping it. As for the third view – that Paul describes an unbeliever generally – it again seems hard to reconcile with the man in this text who wants to keep the Law but understands there’s nothing good in him and that he can’t. Unbelievers are in the dark – they have no concern for the Law and have no understanding of their own sinful state. So the first view – though it too has some issues – seems to be the most accurate reading of the passage.
Regardless of which view we take, to understand these verses we first have to grasp the context. The conversation Paul continues in the last half of Chapter 7 has to do with his earlier contention that though the Law awakened sin in all who heard and tried to follow it, it doesn’t mean the Law itself is sinful. The Law made us aware of sin but it’s not the source of our sinful desires and actions. The Law is holy and righteous and good (vs 12) so it can’t be the agent of our spiritual death. What causes our death apart from Christ is sin itself and sin was shown to be utterly sinful (vs 13) by the Law.
Paul changes to the present tense in verse 14. To this point in the chapter he’s spoken only in the past tense but with this verse he changes to talking in the present. Not that this is definitive, but it goes along with the interpretation that he describes his present life.
His first statement is shocking. To further his point that the Law is spiritual he draws a distinction between the Law and himself and says that I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
Right away we have a problem, don’t we? What did we study in Chapter 6? There Paul said the believer is dead to sin through Christ and thus no longer enslaved to it. He said the one who dies with Christ is freed from the authority of sin in his life (6:2-7). But here, speaking as a believer (or so we hold), he says that he’s sold into bondage to sin (this verse is one of the main arguments for the other two views, by the way). How can that be? How can both statements be true of the same person? What seems to make sense (and this goes for the whole text) is that Paul’s point is that while we’re ultimately free from the authority of sin, we’re never free from sin in this life. We don’t have to obey sinful lusts and desires but we’ll never reach a point where we perfectly fulfill God’s commands. We still have sin’s power with us (hence the admonitions of 6:12-14) even though we crucified our old self with Christ (6:6) and don’t have to let sin reign in our body (6:12). The old self no longer rules us but it’s still here and is essentially enslaved to sin. We – as redeemed children of God – are ultimately dead to sin and alive to God (6:11) but this side of glory we’ll never reach a point where we don’t fall. [Does this make sense? Or does it seem like we’re tying ourselves in knots to justify our view? There’s definitely tension here, isn’t there? The bottom line is that there’s nothing simple about both being redeemed from the penalty and authority of sin but continuing to live in a world ruled by sin and with bodies and minds susceptible to sin. We’re redeemed and free from sin’s authority but we’re not free from sin’s power and reach. It’s why Paul’s admonitions in 6:12-14 are so important. They show that while we’re ultimately free from sin’s authority we still have to fight and persevere in the fight against sin’s power.]
With that in mind, Paul now launches into a description of the somewhat schizophrenic life of a striving believer. He says that what he wants to do he doesn’t do and what he doesn’t want to do he does. What he wants to do is follow the Law but he doesn’t do it. That he wants to follow it, however, shows that he agrees with it. He confesses that it’s good. What’s true, however, is that he doesn’t follow it in fact. What he wants to do he doesn’t do. Why? Because he’s sold into bondage to sin.
In these four verses he twice says that he’s not the one sinning, it’s the sin that indwells him that sins. Indwelling sin causes him to sin. This at first sounds like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, doesn’t it? “Sure I sin, but Paul says I’m not responsible! It’s not me, it’s the sin!” Since that goes against pretty much every teaching about sin in the Bible, we’re probably safe in assuming that it’s not what he means. What he seems to say is that he sins because he’s a sinner. His will wants to obey, but since he’s still in the body and still in this world, he sins. Thus it’s not his redeemed will (that wants to obey) that sins, it’s his old self that expresses itself in a physical body that sins.
He further explains that there is nothing good in him (a statement an unregenerate man would never make) and nothing that will enable him to obey. He wants to obey but in his own strength he can’t. Again he makes the point that what he wants to do he doesn’t do but instead does what he doesn’t want to do.
This frustration goes along with what he says in Galatians 5:17. There he says that the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit (presumably the Holy Spirit) and the Spirit against the flesh and these are in opposition to one another such that we can’t do the things we want to do. We want to obey but the flesh gets in the way to the point that we can’t always do what we want (you may not do the things that you please). It’s ultimately a picture of the Christian life. We want to obey but we oftentimes fall short.
His behavior shows him that evil is present in him. He knows what’s right and he approves of the Law and wants to follow it, but that he can’t shows that evil is in him. He wars against himself and tries to obey but he ultimately knows he’s a prisoner in this life. He’ll never reach perfection (Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect…Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus – Phil 3:12-14) and thus he’s captive to the limitations of this life.
Waging war and making me a prisoner are great phrases, aren’t they? They really describe what sanctification is like. We battle and fight and we win and lose and we’re captive to this body of death that won’t go away until it’s resurrected and the war we wage against it goes on and on. There’s nothing wimpy about the Christian existence.
As an aside, does it sound weird that Paul describes himself as so apparently susceptible to sin? Doesn’t he in other places admonish his readers to imitate his life (I Cor 4:15-17) and doesn’t every account of his life reflect a man wholly committed to righteousness and God’s kingdom? How can the Paul of Acts and his other epistles be the same man so clearly struggling with sin as described in Romans 7? Something to consider – Paul in these verses reflects the mindset of the mature believer. Any study of the New Testament shows that as we mature in Christ we become more and more sensitive to the sin in our lives. The immature believer has little awareness of his own sin but the mature believer sees little else. Thus Paul describes a life of routinely falling short but this same life when described by others reflects almost superhuman levels of righteousness and sanctification. For Paul, his life is full of sin. For others, his life is worthy of emulation. It’s all in the perspective. The more mature in the faith we are and the closer to conformity with our Redeemer we become, the more clearly we see our own sin. Conversely, it’s the immature believer who is only partially aware of his own sin and who wouldn’t think to describe himself as Paul does here.
Paul’s status in sin eventually makes him cry out in despair, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” He hates the limitations this life puts on his sanctification. He hates that he does what he doesn’t want to do. He wants freedom, he wants uninterrupted relationship, he wants to perfectly follow his Redeemer. He wants the war to end.
Thankfully, he doesn’t leave us there. He says there’s an answer. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! We will someday be free from this body of death. We will someday be in the presence of our Redeemer for all eternity. We will someday live in glorified bodies with our Savior. Even more, however, we also have deliverance in this life. It’s not perfect, it’s not complete, but we live in fellowship now. As we saw in 6:8, if we died with Christ then we live with Him and we live with Him NOW. So the deliverance from this body of death won’t be complete until Christ returns or we go to Him but we don’t strive alone. He lives with us in the midst of our sinful limitations and His grace covers our sin. We’re in mortal bodies susceptible to sin but we’re HIS.
Paul then ends with a summary. We’re redeemed children who want to obey but as long as we’re in this life we’ll fall short of fully obeying God’s commands. To put this summary with what he taught in Chapter 6 results in the following understanding of this life: We never have to sin. We never have an excuse for sin. We will never be free from sin.
We aren’t alone. We aren’t uniquely messed up. We aren’t the only ones whose lives seem to be a little schizophrenic and who sometimes find the process of sanctification difficult. This chapter shows that our experience is the norm. The Christian life isn’t just a smooth ride on Sanctification Street. We’re going to fall, we’re going to do things we know we shouldn’t and ultimately don’t want to do, but it’s part of living in this world. We don’t excuse or diminish our sin but we also don’t believe the lie of the Enemy that we’re the only ones who screw up like we do and our God doesn’t understand our limitations. Our Creator/Redeemer knows us and promises to walk with us even as we struggle and fall and haltingly progress toward becoming more like Him.
Isn’t it great that this is in the Bible? Isn’t it great that God’s written will includes a chapter that clearly explains how our lives in this world aren’t easy and our sinful limitations will never go away until we’re ultimately with Him? GOD UNDERSTANDS OUR LIVES and yet never forsakes us or abandons us.
Don’t miss, however, that this also shows the effects of maturing in the faith. We should grow and conform and as we do become more and more aware of our sin. The closer to the Light we get the darker and more obvious our sin should become. It is the mature believer who longs most ardently for deliverance from this body of death.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! He knows us and yet loves us. And He makes sure we know that HE knows the Christian life is full of striving and falling and growing in fits and starts.